Twirling Her Way to the Top
Udouj picked up her first baton at 6 and entered her first competition just a year later. Her mother, a former twirler, introduced her young daughter to the sport. “I was a majorette in high school and twirled at the University of Arkansas,” Melissa said. “So, it was kind of a given that I would share that with Isabella.”
In the past nine years, the two have logged countless hours on the road to practices and competitions throughout the country. They frequently venture to Dallas, where Isabella’s primary twirling coach lives, for training and choreography.
“Isabella is the only competitive twirler in this area of the state, which means we have to travel quite a bit for her sport,” explained Melissa, who also helps with Isabella’s training.
The two are often joined by other members of the family, including Isabella’s dad, Dr. Henry Udouj III, and her brother, Joseph, 11. Isabella’s grandparents also get in on the fun, with Grandpa Henry serving as the “official” photographer at Isabella’s competition.
“We tease him about being her paparazzi because of all the photos he takes,” joked Melissa. “He has been taking pictures of her competing since she was little.”
Her “G’pa” had the chance to snap lots of photos this summer, as Isabella returned to the National Baton Twirling Association’s America’s Youth on Parade event at the University of Notre Dame to compete for the national title. It was her seventh year at the prestigious contest, which serves as a preliminary for the World Open. Isabella earned several high honors, adding more prizes to her already overflowing trophy case. She placed in the Top 10 in the solo, two-baton, strut and three-baton categories for her age division. She also earned a spot in the Top 5 for her partner duet in the advanced category.
To achieve such status in the twirling world has required a great deal of sacrifice and commitment from Isabella. “She never really complains about practicing and such,” Melissa said. “She’s always known what she had to do to compete.”
On average, Isabella devotes two hours a day to practicing, which includes twirling with up to three batons at one time. Her parents even built a special room in their house, complete with high ceilings, to give Isabella her own indoor practice space.
“When we were building on, I kept asking my husband if we go could make the ceilings even higher. He finally looked at me and said, ‘No, they can’t go any higher than that,’” Melissa joked.
In addition to baton, Isabella has taken years of dance lessons. Specializing primarily in ballet and jazz, the training has proven valuable to her twirling career. “Dance has made me better at memorizing choreography,” Isabella said. “It has also improved my overall poise and grace, which all play a role in contests, too.”
The discipline she has learned through her sport has proven beneficial to Isabella in other areas of her life, as well.
“I know it has helped me in so many ways, like teaching me how to manage my time and priorities well. I have learned other skills, such as how to interview and answer judges’ questions through the different rounds at competitions. I know it is all good preparation for my college and career.”
Isabella also finds the time and energy spent worth it because of the lifelong friendships she has made. “My twirling friends and I are really supportive of one another and I know that we will remain friends.”
Fresh off of the competition season, which lasts from January through July, Isabella is excited to turn her attention to performing at halftime with the Southside band. “I love competing, but performing for a big crowd on the field is really fun, too. Competitions are very technical, while doing a routine with the band is more about being showy and pulling off big tricks.”
Her mother joked that they couldn’t quite convince the school to let Isabella pull out all the stops. “She would love to break out the fire batons, but I don’t think they want to risk it on that fancy turf. She’ll have to save those for when she practices with her other twirling friends.”
Although he may not be willing to endanger the football field with flaming batons, Southside band director Sean Carrier is thrilled to have Isabella perform as the featured twirler and believes her skills and attitude will be a great asset to the group.
“Some students you encounter are exceptional. The first time I saw Isabella, I knew she was truly exceptional,” said Carrier. “She is highly motivated, talented, kind and her skills on baton are out of this world. The sky is truly the limit with her.”
Isabella is grateful to have the opportunity to showcase her unique talent to the community and is looking forward to marching out onto the field this season.
“I was more nervous in junior high when I twirled at Ramsey, but now I can just hardly wait to get out there and perform for my school,” said Isabella. “Getting the chance to be part of Southside’s incredible band and do the sport I love ... there is just nothing like it.”
This article by Brittany Ransom appears in the September 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.
Photos by Henry Udouj, Isabella's grandfather.